Soraya Padrao, Pep Muñoz, and Zulema Clares in FUENTEOVEJUNA. Photo by Michael Palma.
BOTTOM LINE: The classic Lope de Vega play about proletariat triumph is cleverly portrayed via a contemporary office setting in Repertorio Español's latest production.
I finally made it to Repertorio Español, NYC's esteemed Spanish-speaking theatre. I'd been meaning to go for a while, partly for the work and partly for the culture. I'm a pseudo-Spanish speaker, after studying the language for many years in high school and college and pretty much never using it in my daily life. I don't think I can tell you about my experience at Fuenteovejuna without first giving you that bit of information.
At Repertorio Español, subtitles are played via the Simultext® In-Seat Captioning System, a little inconspicuous box on the back of the seat in front of you. For those audience members not fluent in Spanish, the experience is remarkably seamless, however your attention is necessarily spent reading rather than watching. I'm sure I missed a lot in the performances because I simply wasn't looking at the actors. For those fans of Spanish theatre (or the Spanish language), I highly recommend attending a performance at Repertorio Español. To hear a play in its original language is an opportunity well worth taking. And this is especially true of my experience at Fuenteovejuna, which happens to be a play I really like but have only read in an English translation.
Director Julián J. Mesri has set the piece in an office, with the class distinction in the story portrayed by the staff and the boss. The townspeople of Fuenteovejuna are the employees, and the commander is in charge. Six actors play the employees, and they joke and flirt while going about their work day until the commander (Pep Muñoz) returns from the war. The commander is used to getting what he wants, and this is particularly true when it comes to the women he lusts after. Laurencia (Soraya Padrao) doesn't have a chance as she's immediately caught in the commander's gaze. But her co-worker and boyfriend Frondoso (Anthony Álvarez) will try his best to fight for Laurencia's freedom. What transpires is a battle of wills between the townsfolk and the commander (with his crony Flores, played by Alfonso Rey). In an act of satisfying karmic retrubituion, the oppresive ruler is overtaken and the townspeople win the day. When they are questioned by the police, they unite and refuse to give up the killers. Solidarity. Er, solidaridad.
Mesri does fine work conceiving the story for a contemporary audience. Although the text is inherently old-fashioned (Fuenteovejuna is a quaint village), the atmosphere evokes The Office's Dunder Mifflin (which, though still more or less a village, is not quite as quaint). And the performances are as broad as those on the aforementioned TV sitcom. This adds some comedy to the story, with relatable caricatures of people in the workplace.
The present-day representation, though clever, isn't always effortless. For example, it's a little weird to watch the female characters as independent women in the 21st century while speaking the words of subjugated 16th century maidens. There's also an interesting yet not always clear use of masks (animal masks, that is), which I believe represent the animals first being hunted, and then doing the hunting themselves. But my lack of understanding could be entirely lost in translation or the result of watching while reading.
Fuenteovejuna utilizes striking design elements (sound by Mesri, lights by Robert Weber Federico, and sets by Leni Méndez) to evoke a sometimes playful / sometimes threatening environment. And Mesri takes advantage of big gestures and synchronized movement to further theatricalize the story. For Spanish speakers and wannabes alike, a night at Repertorio Español is highly recommended. Fuenteovejuna is a wonderful place to start.
(Fuenteovejuna plays at Repertorio Español through April 6, 2013. Performance dates and times vary: visit repertorio.org to see the full schedule. Tickets start at $27. To purchase tickets visit repertorio.org or call 212-225-9999.)